The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
US Plastic and Toxic Tofu
It is often said that the world's poor carry the heaviest burdens of environmental degradation. The proof of that statement, though, can sometimes be statistical or vague.
But last Sunday, I read a report that was vivid and compelling in connecting poverty, environmental devastation, and the systems of global commerce. It is important to look at the example of pollution in Indonesia so that our eyes might be opened, and so that damage can be reduced.
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The Denver Post ran a cut-down version of a story published by New York Times a few days before, giving it the headline, "Makers of tofu burn plastic from U.S." While true, that teaser doesn't begin to suggest the full scope of the horror.
The NYT wasn't the only one to cover this topic recently. There have been articles within the last week by the Guardian, the BBC and others. Google tells me that the LA Times ran a story a month ago, and Friends of the Earth UK had a significant posting
The most recent surge of journalism is spurred by a November report from four non-governmental organizations, "Plastic Waste Poisons Indonesia's Food Chain." This study measured the levels of contamination found in areas where plastic trash serves as fuel, and found astronomical levels of pollutants, especially dioxin. Using a common method of study, the eggs of free-range chickens were sampled. Among the findings:
Why is pollution-causing plastic being burned in Indonesia? There are many reasons, and they begin in the US, the UK, Australia and other affluent countries.
Start with how most of us "recycle" things, by tossing paper, glass, cans and plastic into a single-source bin. Our junk is taken to a processing center, where the various kinds of material are -- imperfectly -- sorted out. Aluminum, other metals, high-value plastics, and glass are shipped off to be recycled and re-manufactured.
Enormous amounts of paper and low-value plastic are not worth much, and they're generally shipped to countries like Indonesia with low wages and weak environmental standards. Inefficient sorting processes, and sometimes blatant fraud, cause the bales of waste paper to contain plastic waste, too. Much of it used to go to China, but that country now pretty much refuses such mixed waste. As a result, the flow of such materials to Indonesia has doubled in recent years.
In East Java, Indonesia, nine recycling companies use 4 million tons of scrap paper per year as feedstock for recycled paper. Other companies recycle some of the better plastic junk. But that leaves huge amounts of mixed paper and plastic, or just worthless plastic, that can't be recycled. We've shipped it there, there's nowhere else for it to go, so it piles up.
In a poor country like Indonesia, that waste has value as a fuel -- including the 30 commercial kitchens in Tropodo that produce tofu. The paper/plastic mix can be 1/10 the cost of wood. Burning the shipped-in junk provides cheap fuel, it gets rid of the mountains of unrecyclable plastic -- and it creates terrible pollution.
The plastic ash is sometimes buried, but often it is spread on the ground, where the free-range chickens are feeding. Thus the high dioxin levels in their eggs. Smoke from the burned plastic is always in the air. A Story of Stuff post put it powerfully:
The smell of burning plastic is omnipresent, and induces headaches and sore throats within minutes of stepping out of car. There is little public health data in places like rural Indonesia, but I can say anecdotally there's something in plain view that's hard to stomach: there are few old people. People in these communities don't seem to live long lives. They are choking on plastic and its poisonous fumes.
It is a tragic example of poor people in a poor country paying the price for the rich world's convenience and consumption. But The Story of Stuff pushes beyond the sad implications of a far-away place.
It's easy to look at this sort of practice out of context and blame a country like Indonesia for 'bad management.' But what's missing from the dialogue is that the current global system of plastic consumption and disposal depends on this reality. If poor people in other countries weren't sorting out the few valuable materials and burning the rest of our Trader Joe's packaging and water bottle wrappers, the recycling systems in developed world countries would economically collapse.
The last page of the NGO report on Indonesia has a number of recommendations. Near the top of the list is the sensible, but currently unrealistic, proposal: "Prohibit combustion as a disposal option for plastic waste or as an example of the 'circular economy.' " Essential to achieving that goal is a global need: "Reduce and minimize plastic production and use ..."
For those of us who live in the rich countries, one simple step that we can take is to reduce pollution in Indonesia is to stop "wish-cycling" -- loosely defined as "the practice of tossing questionable items in the recycling bin, hoping they can somehow be recycled." The low-grade plastic that we try to recycle is the stuff that is killing people in Indonesia.
More substantially, we need to remember that recycling is at the end of the list of the four Rs -- refuse, reduce, reuse, and only then recycle. Individually, and as a society, we need to take the lead on the recommendation "reduce and minimize plastic production and use."
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The 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew has the challenging words from Jesus that our treatment of the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, is how we treat him. At that final judgment, both "the sheep and the goats" are confused, and ask "Lord, when was it that we saw you?"
The ethics of Jesus demand that we give just as much care and attention to the least of our neighbors, the ones who are so often invisible to us, as we would give to Christ himself.
In this case of global pollution, though, we have to turn around the words of Jesus. Jesus said to the accursed, "just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." When it comes to poisoning the poor of the world, though, not doing it is a good thing.
It is painful to learn about the toxic mess in Indonesia, of the great harm that is being caused to people, other creatures and the land in that place by the waste that we send there. May we have the courage to remember what is happening, and may we find motivation in the plight of "the least of these" to clean up our wasteful and toxic culture.
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